Archive for the ‘postage stamps’ category

This one’s for the bird (stamp)!

23 July 2011

One of the problems of Indian Philately is that the “story” behind a postage stamp is quite opaque. The postal department does not oblige philatelists by reliable documentation and transparent procedures. I was writing an article on “Birds on Indian Stamps” for Aasheesh Pittie, editor of the Indian Birds and I found it difficult to find any information about bird stamps. I was constrained to publish the article, though I felt that I had inadequate information and could find no way of getting more. Those who missed reading the article and would like to peruse it may find it here.

Rather surprisingly, some people liked the article, despite it being just a set of dry facts and observations on them, and wrote to tell me so. Two of the responses were of very great interest to me.

The first email was from Mr Zafar Futehally, one of our doyens of bird-watching. He appreciated the article, saying that it enthused him so much that he wished he were young again so that he could start collecting bird stamps. That warmed the cockles of my heart.

A young Peter Jackson poses in front of the Khumbu icefall during the 1953 climbing season. (Image copyrighted by Peter Jackson)

The other email was from Mr Peter Jackson, a retired gentleman from England. Mr Jackson began his career as a reporter for Reuters and made his mark reporting for John Hunt‘s Everest Expedition which climbed Everest for the first time in 1953. He went on to become a good wildlife photographer and a dedicated conservationist. He is renowned for his work on wild cats.  I was quite flattered to receive an email of appreciation from him too.

Mr Jackson mentioned that one of the stamps that was shown in the article was based on his image. Mr Jackson referred to a definitive stamp of India, a 50 paise stamp issued in 1975 showing a flying bird in blue. The List of Stamps (1852-2007), published by the Department of Posts, describes it as “Flying Crane”. One of the leading bird stamp websites “” lists the stamp as Demoiselle Crane (Grus virgo) – perhaps because a Demoiselle best seemed to fit the image. The finer details of the image on the stamp are indistinct, as the stamp is itself less than an inch in height or width.

A small postage stamp. almost square shwing a flying bird coming in to land with legs outstretced below, with denomination 50p, and the words "India" in English and the Hindi word "Bharat" in Devanagari script

1975 definitive stamp of denomination 50p

Mr Jackson pointed out that the image was his and it was taken in Bharatpur and was of the Intermediate Egret (Mesophoyx intermedia), not a Demoiselle Crane. He was kind enough to send me the original image which is displayed in this article. He had photographed it among the many birds nesting in Keoladeo Ghana way back in the 1960s when he lived in India.

Mr Peter Jackson's original image upon which the stamp is based. (Image copyrighted by Peter Jackson)

In his own words, he describes how the image found its way on the stamp :

“I was surprised when I found my photo on stamps. I couldn’t make out how the post got it. Sometime later one of my daughters was lunching with an artist friend. He said that I had sent him the photo for art work. He recommended it to the post and told them they could use it on a stamp if they got my permission. But they failed to contact me and just went ahead. Of course, I was pleased to see the photo on a stamp, but I never got any thanks from the post. It served for 10 years.”

Mr Jackson was unfortunate in that he got no gratitude from the Indian Post, but he was lucky in that the stamp his image adorned was a definitive and not a commemorative stamp.

Mr Jackson’s image on the definitive has adorned millions of letters, parcels and postcards for more than a decade, thereby giving his image exposure to an audience many times larger than ever possible by other means of the time.

We can only thank Mr. Jackson for taking the beautiful image so that it could find its way onto the postage stamp. It is important to know that this contribution on his part is very small compared to the sterling work he has done in his lifetime for Indian Wildlife. A close friend of Kailash Sankhala, he joined the World Wildlife Fund  (today Worldwide Fund for Nature) in 1970. When WWF raised over a million pounds internationally to save the tiger,   he was sent to India to help purchase the equipment paid for by WWF for the setting up of Project Tiger. Later, he became an independent writer on wildlife. Mr. Jackson was appointed as head of the defunct Cat Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN in 1983 and headed it for 17 years converting it into a close-knit team of over 200 cat scientists, including many Indians. He created the CatSG magazine about the activities of the Cat Specialist group in 1984 and edited it till he retired in 2000. He still contributes world cat news to the magazine.  During his time as chairman, Mr. Jackson travelled around the world to help support cats, including many visits to India.

Thank you Mr Jackson for your life work’s  in preserving India’s wildlife in general and our country’s big cats in particular.

In Wikipedia tradition, I present you with a barnstar, in this case, the Fauna barnstar!

THE SPOTTED OWLET (Athene brama) – Natural history in verse!

2 January 2011


Ashwin and Aditi Baindur


Spotted Owlet (Artist: Aditi Baindur)


When I go for an evening walk
along the tree-lined CME street,
there is bound to be an interesting creature
or two that I am sure to meet.

Sometime its a palm civet
or nightjar with chuff chuff call
mostly its just a little owlet,
grey-spotted but half foot tall.

Not just in Pune is he found
In South Asia wherever he can be
From sunny Mekran to rainy Indo-China
and Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

From sunny Mekran to rainy Indo-China, and from Kashmir to Kanyakumari

People in our North call him chughad,
Khussatia or even oodloo.
In Bengal he is called Kuture pencha
And in Sindh he is known as Chibiru.

Some foolish people think him a bad omen;
he is named after wise Athene.
Bobs his head to Brahma for his name,
in mythology he carries Laxmi.

The Owl (Ulooka in Sanskrit), seen at Laxmi's feet, is the traditional vehicle of Goddess Laxmi. (Click image to reach source. Reproduced under fair use).

An owlet pair are always found
on the signpost of 253B,
from where they are perched in shadow
but the lighted path they can see.

On this road they aren’t quite alone,
I find them on ‘most any tree,
every fifty yards or outside each garage.
We indeed have an owly colony!

The little ones of the field and garden
are welcome guests to their feast –
mice, centipedes, insects, beetles
even snakes and scorpions they eat.

Spotted Owlet and prey! (Owl Image:J.M. Garg, on Wikimedia Commons)

Their house is in in a little shelf
between the rafters and my bungalow roof.
From outside there is very little sign,
some pellets on the floor my only proof

that a quaint little family dwells in my bungalow
quietly along with me
and helps look after my interests
by eating small rodentry.

November to April is their special time,
to start a little family
beginning with four white spherical eggs
the fledgelings away in weeks three.

Fledgeling Spotted Owlets with squirrel (© Jagdeep Rajput /

A noisier pair I’m yet to find
so bold and confident are they,
chirruk chirruk they screech at dawn
and chirwak chirwak ending day.

I like the owlets very very much
though they watch me very closely!
Now he bobs his head, she turns hers around.
I’m sure they also like me!


  • Text of poem under Creative Commons 3.0 Unported.
  • Image credits – see individual images.
  • This poem appeared on CME Weekly on 25 Dec 2010. Copyright rests with author.
  • Information: Spotted Owlet. (2010, December 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:19, January 2, 2011, from

Image: J.M. Garg (from Wikimedia Commons)

The Good Mother (55 Fiction)

17 April 2010

The good mother!

The mother crouched over her eggs but the rocks and earth from the overhung crushed her and her progeny none the less. Capricious fortune! Her head only four inches from her eggs,  she was dubbed “Egg seizer” millenia later despite her supreme sacrifice. Seven decades of ignominy till her loving nature came to light.

This is the story of “Oviraptor “. Read more about it here.

A museum exhibit - Oviraptor guards her eggs.

This Azerbaijan stamp of 1994 reflects the previous view of Oviraptor as an egg thief.

Image credits. Click image to reach the source page.

Orbs of flame

15 April 2010

Off on a comet – Part II (Find Part I here)

Giovanni Battista Donati was an Italian astronomer who, on Aug. 5, 1864, was first to observe the spectrum of a comet (Comet 1864 II) now named after him. This observation indicated correctly that comet tails contain luminous gas and do not shine merely by reflected sunlight. Note the Big Dipper to the right. The bright star near the comet's head is Arcturus in the constellation Bootes.

", dry exhalations gathered and occasionally burst into flame..." - Aristotle

"..were hot, dry exhalations which gathered and occasionally burst into flame..." - Aristotle

Of all heavenly phenomena, none have fascinated man more than the appearance of comets in the sky. These objects behaved (to the ancients) so strangely and will fully that they were considered signs from Gods to mortals on Earth.

What were the gods trying to say? Some cultures read the message by the images that they saw upon looking at the comet. For example, the tail of the comet gave it the appearance of the head of a woman, with long flowing hair behind her. This sorrowful symbol of mourning was understood to mean the gods that had sent the comet to earth were displeased. There are many such myths which have emerged over the millenia in many cultures, both oriental and occidental.

However, till the advent of  the telescope and the “Thinking Man” of Renaissance times, mankind had no way to understand what exactly a comet was composed of.

Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, who studied under Plato and taught Alexander the Great, in his work “Meteorology“,  speaks across two millenia to us :

We know that the dry and warm exhalation is the outermost part of the terrestrial world which falls below the circular motion. It, and a great part of the air that is continuous with it below, is carried round the earth by the motion of the circular revolution. In the course of this motion it often ignites wherever it may happen to be of the right consistency, and this we maintain to be the cause of the ‘shooting’ of scattered ‘stars’.

We may say, then, that a comet is formed when the upper motion introduces into a gathering of this kind a fiery principle not of such excessive strength as to burn up much of the material quickly, nor so weak as soon to be extinguished, but stronger and capable of burning up much material, and when exhalation of the right consistency rises from below and meets it.

This was completely in harmony with Aristotle’s view of the “Geocentric Universe“, i.e. the stars and the Sun revolved around the Earth. He argued that they could not be heavenly bodies as they did not move across the sky with the stars. Hence, to suit his world-view, he postulated them as creatures of the atmosphere.

Types of cometary forms, illustrations from Johannes Hevelius' Cometographia (Danzig, 1668)

An ancient bust of Seneca the Younger in the Antikensammlung, Berlin.

Aristotle’s views were questioned even in antiquity. The Roman Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, more popularly known as Seneca the Younger, writes in “Natural Questions VII“, his only opus on Natural History, that :

Are they a concentration of flame as our
vision avers, and as the very light that streams from
them, 1 and the heat that descends from them suggest ?

6  Or are their orbs not of flame, but, as it were, solid
bodies of earth that glide through tracts of fire,
and having no light of their own draw thence
their brightness and heat ? That is an opinion that
has been held by great men who have believed
the stars to be compact of hard material, and to be
nourished by fire that is not their own. Flame

by itself, they argue, would be dissipated and would
have nothing to hold or to be held by. If it were
merely massed and not attached to a solid body,
the universe would assuredly long since have
scattered it in its impetuous whirl…

Seneca held that comets moved regularly through the sky and were undisturbed by the wind, behavior more typical of celestial than atmospheric phenomena. While he conceded that the other planets do not appear outside the Zodiac, he saw no reason that a planet-like object could not move through any part of the sky.

Aristotle’s views drowned out voices like Seneca’s and were pre-eminent through the mighty march of centuries till the dawn of the Renaissance.

This drawing of the comet of 1577 by a Turkish astronomer appeared in the book "Tarcuma-I Cifr al-Cami" by Mohammed b. Kamaladdin written in the 16th century. The yellow Moon, stars and comet are shown against a light blue sky.

In 1577, a bright comet was visible in the sky for several months. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe used measurements of the comet’s position taken by himself and other, geographically separated, observers to determine that the comet had no measurable parallax. Within the precision of the measurements, this implied the comet must be at least four times more distant from the earth than the moon. This was the first proof that comets were extra-terrestrial creatures and not of the Earth itself. Hence they had to be “real’ bodies, not atmospheric apparitions as propounded by Aristotle.

A curious case. Halley's Comet and portrait on a Grenada stamp, but the drawing is by the great Tycho Brahe himself. The caption of the stamp and that of another stamp in the series have been exchanged. It should read: “Tycho Brahe’s notes and sketch—Comet of 1577."

The next person to comment on comets was none other than the great natural philosopher and mathematician, Isaac Newton himself. He described comets as compact and durable solid bodies moving in oblique orbits, and their tails as thin streams of vapor emitted by their nuclei, ignited or heated by the sun. Newton suspected that comets were the origin of the life-supporting component of air. Newton also believed that the vapors given off by comets might replenish the planets’ supplies of water (which was gradually being converted into soil by the growth and decay of plants), and the sun’s supply of fuel.

Newton was right in many ways. Comets were solid objects trailing vapour emitted by nuclei emitted because of solar heating. Comets are also considered to be a source of extra-terrestrial water in the Solar Sytem. However they did not add to the sun’s store of nuclear fuel.

Newton made another great contribution to cometary science with his treatise Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.  In book 3, “De mundi systemate” (On the system of the world) , he describes the celestial mechanics of cometary orbits.

Sir Isaac Newton's depiction of the orbit of the Comet of 1680, fit to a parabola. (From ''The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy''. London: Benjamin Motte, 1729. )

Newton was approached by Edmond Halley for guidance in the understanding of celestial mechanics. Newton sent him a document which, though untitled in reality, is today known under the name of “De motu corporum in gyrum (Latin: “On the motion of bodies in an orbit”). Using Newton’s mathematical principles, Edmond Halley deduced that the great comets of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 were one and the same. In 1705,  Halley published “Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae”, in which he stated his belief that the comet sightings were of the same comet. He further predicted that it would return in 1758. Halley did not live to witness the comet’s return, but when it did, the comet became generally known as Halley’s Comet.

Immanuel Kant thought not just about reason but cometary science too.

In 1755, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who is not very widely known for his astronomical studies, hypothesized that comets are composed of some volatile substance, whose vaporization gives rise to their brilliant displays near perihelion. In his work  “Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels” (English: Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven), Kant writes :

Their atmosphere and tail, which expand through the heat of their close approach to the sun, are only consequences of the eccentricity, although they have always served in times of ignorance as uncommon images of horror, announcing to the common folk imaginary destinies….

He was right as regards the nature of the atmosphere and tail – it is solar radiation that causes the volatile materials within a comet to vaporize and stream out of the nucleus, carrying dust away with them. This stream of dust and gas forms a huge, extremely tenuous atmosphere around the comet called the “coma”, and the force exerted on the coma by the Sun’s radiation pressure and solar wind cause an enormous “tail” to form, which points away from the sun.

The external parts of a comet

However Kant’s theory which would have required comets to comprise mainly of volatile material were overshadowed, not by another philosopher’s views but by events which drew another, partially correct explanation of the the nature of a comet’s substance.

In 1872, a major meteor shower occurred from the orbit of Comet Biela, which had been observed to split into two pieces during its visit in 1846, and was never seen again after 1852. Earlier, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli computed the orbit of the Perseid meteors over the period 1864–1866. Based on orbital similarities, he correctly hypothesized that the Perseid meteors were nothing but fragments of Comet Swift-Tuttle. This not only linked comets and meteor showers but also gave rise to the “gravel bank” model of comet structure, according to which comets consist of loose piles of small rocky objects, coated with an icy layer. That is, it is mostly hard matter but with some ice and other volatile material.

The annual Perseid meteor showers are created by the dust plumes of Comet Swift-Tuttle which visited Earth in 1992 and next comes in 2126.

By the middle of the twentieth century, this view of a comet’s composition suffered from a number of shortcomings. For example, how could a body, that contained only a little ice,  continue to put on a brilliant display of evaporating vapor after several perihelion passages around the Sun.

In 1950, Fred Lawrence Whipple proposed that rather than being rocky objects containing some ice, comets were icy objects containing some dust and rock. So matters stood till the turn of the Twentieth Century when, to answer these and other such questions, NASA began launching space missions to intercept comets and interact with them.

To learn about the trysts of spacecraft with comets, wait for “Of Deep Space and Stardust” (part III of “Off on a Comet”).

Sources :

  • “Meteorology” by Aristotle. (Read the English translation of Book 1 here.)
  • “Natural Questions” by Seneca the Younger. (Read the English translation of Book VII here.)
  • “Universal Natural History and Theory of the  Heavens” by Immanuel Kant (Read Part II, Section 3 here.)

Images : Click the image to reach the source.

  • Wikimedia Commons – Comet Donati (p.d.), Aristotle (cc sa 3.0), Seneca (cc sa 3.0),  Newton’s diagram (p.d.), Kant postage stamp (p.d.), Perseids meteor shower (cc sa 3.0),
  • Hevelius’ comets : NASA/JPL.
  • Blue Turkish Comet : copyright – Erol Pakin.
  • Cometary structure : copyright –
  • Brahe/Halley stamp : copyright: -Dan from

Epic splendour

13 February 2010

The nature writing of James Michener

One does not often associate James Michener with nature-writing.  He writes epics, sometimes likened to fictional documentaries, with wide strokes on broad canvases. Yet in most of his epic stories,   it is difficult not to find a a chapter or more about the land, its formation, the animals, the plants and the people who live amongst them.

Like another of my favourite authors, Louis L’Amour, Michener is one with the panorama that he writes about, be it desolate and strange, or familiar and unremarkable.

A pine-clad valley ringed with buttes and a snow-clad mountain, King's Peak above which white clouds cover most of a rich blue sky.

King's Peak seen across Henry's Fork basin. This scenic vista, the essence of his books about continental USA, corresponds to the broad and diverse subject matter of Michener's epics, considered by some to be fictional documentaries. (Image : Hyram K. Wright. GFDL)

Somerset Maugham once stated about writing that :

The best style is the style you don’t notice.

So it is with Michener, he researches his biology, his geology and writes.  When he does so, he transports us back into time. In our mind, a movie runs, initiated by his simple, eloquent yet powerful style.

Drawing of a large heard of bison and other animals with outline in charcoal and yellow/brown colours presumably by use of ochre and haematite dies. This is a prehistoric work of art found in Altamira cave in Spain.

Prehistoric Bison painted by paleolithic man in Altamira cave (Spain). (Image: Reconstruction by Emille de Cartailhac, 1906. Public domain).

Take for example this passage from “Portrait of Rufous” from his novel ‘Centennial‘ :

..the wolves that hung about the edges of a herd, hoping for a bit of luck, spotted the little calf.  They had a good chance of picking him off, since the older bull was endeavouring to kick him to one side. So they closed in on the running pair, trying to insert themselves between the baby bull and the mature one.

They failed. Once Rufous recognised their strategy, he became a changed animal. It was his responsibility to protect calves, no matter how bothersome, no matter how distant the retreating heard. Accordingly he scanned the terrain as he ran and spotted a small embankment that may provide protection.

Twisting his head abruptly to the right, he headed for the rocky bank. As if the young calf had been physically attached to him, he turned at the same time and the two galloped to the refuge. There Rufous turned to confront his enemies, keeping the calf beside him and well protected by his large flank.

The wolves closed in, eleven of them, but they were powerless against his horns and massive head, nor could they slip behind him to attack his tendons because he kept his rear tight against the rock. If he had not been hampered by this irritating calf, he could have been beaten back the wolves and returned to the herd, but with that encumbrance, he could do no more than protect himself.

He did manage one other defense.  He bellowed several times – the low guttural cry seemed to roll vainly across the vast pririe.  But he was heard.  The bison having outrun their fright, had stopped and were aimlessly milling around when the master fighter of the herd to whch Rufous belonged, the large black bull, heard the cry of distress and doubled back to investigate. With him came the bull with the slanting left horn, and the closer they approached the intermittent bellow, the faster they ran.

A brightly coloured bison with head down charging to the left. Coloured in rufous, black,  burnt umber,  wheat and white. Colour names from 'List of colours' in Wikipedia where each colour is shown with associated name.

Rufous - painted by a paleolithic artist half a world away. (Image: Public domain photograph.)

Geological happenings such as the formation of the land masses, oceans, archipelagos, glaciers, mountain ranges, great lakes and valleys are all grist for the mill to Michener. A moving hot spot through the Earth’s crust left islands strewn like a string of pearls.  Such things fascinated Michener, for in two books – Hawaii and Centennial – he has included a chapter on how the land was formed, the violent volcanic upheavals in the Pacific in the case of the former and the titanic pushing of the continental plates in continental North America in the case of the latter.  Not only does Michener write on such seemingly dry, dusty topics, he in fact waxes poetically about them.

A sunset scene of an ocean with a distant coastline to the right. The blood-red and black colours of the sunset on the Bering Sea are analogous to the powerful tectonic forces and magma movements which created land in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, millions of years ago.

Black and blood-red sunset reflected in the dark ocean waters of the Bering Strait remind one that islands in the Pacific were borne of fire and lava millions of years ago. (Image: NOAA, public domain).

See how Michener writes about the very first super-ocean in the chapter “From the boundless deep” in Hawaii :

“Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been fixed, there was, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others. It was a mighty ocean, lying to the east of the largest continent, a restless, ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.

Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth, whipping the waters into towering waves that crashed down upon the world’s seacoasts, tearing away rocks and eroding the land. In its dark bosom, strange life was beginning to form, minute at first, then gradually of a structure now lost even to memory. Upon its farthest reaches birds with enormous wings came to rest, and then flew on.

Agitated by a moon stronger then than now, immense tides ripped across this tremendous ocean, keeping it in a state of torment. Since no great amounts of sand had yet been created, the waters where they reached shore were universally dark, black as night. Scores of millions of years before man rose from the shores of the ocean to perceive its grandeur and to venture forth upon its turbulent waves, this eternal sea existed, larger than any other of the earth’s features, more enormous than the sister oceans combined, wild terrifying in its immensity and imperative in its universal role….

…then one day millions of years ago, a rupture developed in the rocky bed of the ocean. It occurred near the middle of the sea, a bit closer to what would later become the western United States than to the shores of eastern Asia. Some great fracture of the earth’s basic structure had occurred and from it began to ooze a white-hot liquid rock. As it escaped from its internal prison and came into contact with the ocean’s wet and heavy body, the rock instantly exploded, sending aloft through the nineteen thousand feet of ocean that had pressed down upon it columns of released steam.”

In most books, Michener chooses one or more animals, their stories to tell as part of the textual mural. In ‘Chesapeake’, he writes of Onk-or, the wild goose, and of Jimmy, the Blue Crab, which formed part of the delicious New England fare and on whose shell, several fortunes rested. In Texas, he writes of armadilloes whose determined predations left a hapless Texas town helplessly unable to protect their lawns. In Alaska, it is the story of Nerka, the salmon.

A mammoth stridin forth towards and to the left of the observer holding aloft its brace of large curved tusks. The mammoth walks along a shallow draw outlind by forest on undulating slopeds behind it. On the right side of the image, to the right and behind the mammoth, part of its herd can be seen with three adults and two calves proceeding from left to right.

An American Mastodon, the most recent of the genus of extinct probiscideans. While mastodons had a size and appearance similar to elephants and mammoths, they were not particularly closely related. (Image: 1897 portrait by Charles Knight. Public domain.)

In Alaska, we also get to meet two fascinating prehistoric pachyderms – the Mastodon and the Woolly Mammoth.

Whats the difference between a Mastodon and a Woolly Mammoth?  Mastodons lived  from 40 million years ago (mya) to about 10,000 BCE. They were browsers – they fed on leaves, soft shoots, or fruits of high growing, generally woody, plants such as shrubs. They had no hair.

Michener writes in ‘Mastodon’ :

Nowhere else could the subtle relationships be intimately observed. Ice high, oceans low. Bridge open, passageway closed. The ponderous Mastodon lumbering toward North America, the delicate horse moving toward Asia. Mastodon lurching toward inescapable extinction. The horse galloping toward an enlarged life in France and Arabia. Alaska, its extremities girt in ice, served as a way station for all the travelers,    regardless of the direction in which they headed. its broad valleys that were free of ice and its invigorating climate provided a hospitable resting place.

On the other hand, Mammoths had a thick layer of shaggy hair and were  grazers (grass eaters). They  lived from 4.8 million to 4,500 years ago. In Alaska, they existed at different points in time, when the climate was different.

Both these animals were wiped out as part of the great Pleistocene megafauna extinction.

A herd of Wolly Mammoths cross the tundra watched by other animals - cave lions, horses and a woolly rhinoceros. Patches of snow cover the ground. In other places grass shows up. A few trees are also seen. The weather appears overcast with a few clouds. on the horizon.

Matriarch leads her herd across the Alaskan tundra. (Image:Mauricio Anton, License CC - A - 2.5 generic.)

About woolly mammoth, Michener writes:

One day late in winter, twenty-nine thousand years ago, Matriarch, a mammoth grandmother, forty four years old and beginning to show her age, led the little herd of six for which she was responsible down a softly rolling meadow to the banks of a great river later to be known as the Yukon. Lifting her trunk high to sniff the warming air and signaling the others to follow, she entered a grove of willow herbs that lined the river, and when the others had taken their place besides her, she indicated that they might begin feeding on the sprouting tips of willow branches. They did so with delight because they had subsisted on meager rations during the previous winter, and as they gorged, Matriarch gave grunts of encouragement.

It is in the novel Centennial that we see Michener provide a bewildering array of animal stories in a chapter titled ‘The Inhabitants’.

Let the word ‘chapter’ not fool you for Michener provides a complete set of animal stories discussing the appearance and interaction of the earliest creatures. He starts from the dinosaur “Diplodocus” to go on to the fore-runners of the modern horse, the prehistoric bison, the giant beaver, the rattlesnake and more.

A blue crab resting on mud with its arms outstretched towards the right and below. Its orange and blue markings are prominent.

Jimmy, the blue crab of Chesapeake Bay. (Image: NOAA - public domain.)

Michener is careful about his research. An account of his preparation for the novel ‘Covenant’ can be found here. In “Jimmy the crab”, one meets a Blue crab facing the challenge of extensive siltation and excessive fresh water. The story tells of how a hurricane created such a problem for the crab, the crabs efforts to cope and their eventual death due to pollution. It is told simply, the secrets of crab biology informed in a most matter-of-fact way and harsh reality not denied.

Michener loves his animals. His writings bear no sign of anthropomorphism except in the choice of the subjects themselves. He writes of the love he felt for a pet hyena in Spain where he wrestles and plays with a creature whose robust jaws could have crushed a limb or his face but which never did so while holding them gently within its formidable maw. He also tells of a fellow-feeling that he felt for a particular grizzled old bison when he spent time studying a bison herd. He decided to make this bison and the hyena the protagonists of two stories.

To find Michener’s nature stories, one does not need to trawl through his literature, which of course is the best way to read him and understand how he viewed nature in its context. The stories have been collected and during his lifetime itself issued as “The Creatures of the Kingdom”. The book has a foreword by Michener himself and tells of his attitude to nature. Michener writes:

I cannot think of myself as exceptional in any respect. I know that man could never have survived the violent volcanoic upheavals in the Pacific Ocean that created the glorious chain of Hawaiin islands. The first tenants of the newly born Rocky Mountains surely did not walk upright. My kind has lived here on Earth only a few million years; the dinosaurs thrived for a hundred million. And I am not homocentric enough to think that man embodies all that is best in the animal kingdom, in which he plays a dominant path. He cannot slither along his belly like a snake or use his nose to feed himself the way an elephant can. He has not the incredible hearing system of a bat, the sense of smell of a bloodhound, or the capacity to survive underwater like a slug. He cannot cast off his aging skin like a crab or stand motionless for hours on one foot like a blue heron. Man is a wonderful creature, majestic in his mental capabilities, but in many other respects he is either limited or downright deficient.

A postage stamp with Michener's face facing us smiling. Wearing bUsh shirt, spectacles and a  flowery garland.

Great Americans series - 59 cents James Michener 2008 issue

So what is Michener’s reason for including such powerful nature writing into his epics ?

One reason could be that Michener wants to portray a truth he himself has expounded…

If man assesses himself honestly when he compares himself with other animals, he can avoid getting a swollen head…

That then, in my humble opinion,  is Michener’s ultimate purpose of writing about nature – to portray man as just one facet in a long timescape. An important cog admittedly in the machinery of the world today, but a cog nevertheless.

Image credits: All images have a free license and can be found on Wikimedia Commons. Go to the source page with full details of attribution and licensing by clicking on the image. Except for the stamp image which is used here under fair use.

A child said, What is the grass?

13 January 2010

In Indian schoolbooks, one often comes across poems by the British masters such as Keats, Wordsworth, Yeats and Hopkins. The American poets such as Robert Frost and Walt Whitman are rarely to be found. This is due to our colonial legacy.

The very first nature poem that was featured on this blog was Robert Frost’s “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening“.

Here now is one by Walt Whitman, who writes about a very common motif of nature, often overlooked,  over-trod and discounted – Grass.

Grass & wild flowers on a Russian river bank

Grass & wild flowers on a Russian river bank.

A child said, What is the grass?

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

A US Postage Stamp of 1948 commemorating Walt Whitman.

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

Walt Whitman

A nature poem?  Not quite!

One could say that Whitman used grass to expound about the human condition much as Sylvia Plath used Mushrooms for her purpose. However Whitman goes much further. He uses motifs from nature and man’s experience of it through the senses to exalt the human body and materialism. This was in stark contrast to the allegory and spiritualism that had been the tone of poetry before him.

Whitman’s magnum opus, is of course “Leaves of Grass“,  an anthology of poems he first published in 1855 and kept revising right till his death. Incidentally, though this poem is from this anthology and is about the common plant we know about, the name of the book ‘Leaves of grass’ is not about that vegetation but, instead, is a play on words.

In the forgotten lingo of nineteenth century book-publishers, ‘grass’ is used to denote works of minor value. ‘Leaves’ referes to pages. The whole name is a mocking apellation for his principal thesis.

Read Whitman’s poem on grass, look for connections with nature, with experiencing nature and for allegories with the human condition. It was a bit strange to me as I am still not used to prose-like poems very much.

It may seem of little value to read about grass. But grass is one of the bases of the food chain.

Algae, grasses and other leaves and branches of other plants are the broad base of autotrophs who support all life in the world. Grasses such as wheat and rice feed mankind directly. Bamboo, a most useful plant, too is a grass of sorts.

All the same, thinking about grass in any way gives us greater insight to this common-place and under-rated vegtation than not thinking about it at all.

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Image credits – Click on the image to reach the source page on Wikimedia Commons.

Off on a comet!

11 December 2009

This post (hopefully first of a series) was inspired when a chance twitter about the Scattered Disc, Oort’s Cloud et al triggered requests from my Facebook friends to blog about the new Solar System.

The new Solar System

The mind can journey far beyond where the eye can see, or the ear can hear, and much much farther than the spear can be thrown.

The mind effortlessly soars beyond humanity’s farthest frontiers – the material frontier where Voyager now transits through the Heliopause some hundreds of millions of miles away – or the energy frontier – the outward traveling wavefront of the very first radio transmission recognisable as emanating from intelligent human life.

The position of Voyager 1 in 2007 as it approaches the heliopause. At the heliopause, the Sun's solar wind is stopped by the interstellar medium and the satellite is subject to the the stellar winds of the surrounding stars. (Click to enlarge).

The stars above me on a clear moonless winter night, the necklace of luminescent stars that make up the Milky Way, the pinwheel spiral galaxies where man may never reach – all these have fascinated me since I was a child. I adored fiction about space, especially space opera. Like most of us, for a long time all I knew was what I had learned in school – that we had a star and nine planets…yadda,yadda, yadda… Jupiter is the largest, Pluto is the furthest,,,yadda, yadda, yadda…

The old view of the Solar System - sun with 9 planets!

The old view of the Solar System - Sun with 9 planets, outermost of which was Pluto!

As a young child, I found nearby planets boring! I yearned for the deeps of outer space. I wanted to be on the bridge of the Enterprise, boldly going where no man had gone before. Galaxies were great stuff, so were pulsars and supernovas. Mars, Moon, Jupiter? Huh!

The Andromeda Galaxy portrayed on a German stamp of 1999.

I much preferred the mysteries of black holes and the looming terror of an event horizon to the rings of Saturn. It was during my early days of editing Wikipedia. I had not yet received a barnstar, a kind of award on Wikipedia. I learnt that if I reviewed five nominee articles for the status of ‘Good Articles‘ and shepherded them through a process, I was eligible to receive a barn star.

One of the articles I reviewed was Deep Impact (space mission)!  You probably would not have heard of 9P/Tempel – a minor periodic comet which circles around our Sun every five and a half years! A fairly frequent and predictable comet, it was selected by NASA as the first comet to be explored by their pioneering venture into space after comets – the unmanned space mission called ‘Deep Impact’.

While reviewing this article I once again discovered the magic and mystery in that mundane grouping of planets around a yellow dwarf that we call our Solar System.

Deep Impact, a spacecraft which sent an impactor to collide with Comet 9P/Tempel in July 2005.

Wikipedia tells us that –

A comet is a small solar system body that has a coma and/or a tail and is bigger than a meteoroid. When close enough to the Sun, a comet exhibits a visible coma (fuzzy “atmosphere”), and sometimes a tail, both because of the effects of solar radiation upon the comet’s nucleus. Comet nuclei are themselves loose collections of ice, dust and small rocky particles, ranging from a few hundred metres to tens of kilometres across.

Comets have long fascinated mankind – in the Western civilisation they have been regarded as harbingers of doom or omens of upheaval and change! The people of the past had no idea of geography, no concept of the Universe as we know it today. They found it fearsome to see a strange heavenly object appear amongst the familiar patterns of the constellations.

The tail of a comet always points away from the Sun!

This strange visitor moved from constellation to constellation and had a plume that ALWAYS pointed away from the Sun! For a period it would vanish as it would circle the Sun and reappear as a blaze on its return path. Gradually as it went into the deeps of space it would lose its plume, its shine and then disappear ostensibly forever.

No one could predict when such an apparition would return until the English astronomer Edmund Halley corelated historical data from a variety of sources and realised that in a cosmic game of Vikram and Vetaal, the comets of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 were one and the same. He further predicted that this comet would return in 1758. Halley did not live to witness the comet’s return, but when it did, the comet became generally known as Halley’s Comet.

One of the earliest photographs of Halley's Comet taken during its visit in 1910.

Since then hundreds of comets have been mapped. Each year, large numbers of minuscule comets traverse the Solar system unknown to all but astronomers.

It is only those comets which are visible to the naked eye that draw the imagination of mankind. Such comets are called ‘Great Comets‘. Some of the recent great comets have been Halley’s Comet of 1986 which was visited by the Giotto space mission, Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997 and Comet McNaught in 2007.

On a gruesome note, members of a religious cult in the United States, called Heaven’s Gate committed mass-suicide after their leader proclaimed that a space-craft followed in the wake of comet Hale-Bopp to transport them to ‘the next level of existence’.

Besides this, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 made history in 2004 when it broke apart and crashed into Jupiter.

Comet Hale-Bopp seen over Croatia. It's arrival triggered a mass-suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult in the US.

But what is a comet composed of? What are the properties of its ‘earth’ or ‘soil’? To answer these and other such questions, many space missions have been launched to date. Vega 1 and 2, Giotto, Deep Space 1, Stardust and Deep Impact all helped us piece together what we know today.

To learn more about comets, read “Orbs of flame” (Part II), and for even more wait for ‘Deep Space and Stardust’ (Part III)…